Jamal Khashoggi’s murder poses a dilemma for Saudi Arabia’s allies

Delhi, India Oct 23, 2018, 10.30 AM(IST) Written By: Zvi Ba'rel

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yemeni Tawakkol Karman holds up a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Is the kingdom’s latest version, according to which the Saudi journalist died in a fist fight with a number of Saudis who were arrested last week, enough to salvage Donald Trump’s precious $110 billion arms deal? 

The most serious threat to the Saudi version is in the hands of Turkish intelligence. Ankara might determine the nature of relations between Riyadh and Washington, and the question is – what will it want to make of the scandal?

Has the formula been found for the lie that absolves Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

Is the kingdom’s latest version, according to which the Saudi journalist died in a fist fight with a number of Saudis who were arrested last week, enough to salvage Donald Trump’s precious $110 billion arms deal? 

The US president rushed to declare the Saudi explanation “credible.” It’s possible that someone who dispenses lies on a daily basis knows the difference between credible and incredible lies. But anyone who chooses to believe the Saudi version must ask a few nagging questions.

The first pertains to the location of Khashoggi’s body, whole or otherwise. If he died in a brawl, why was it necessary to dismember the corpse? What were 15 Saudi security officers doing at the consulate? Why did the crown prince lie when he said he didn’t know about Khashoggi’s murder, and why did the Saudis say the journalist left the consulate shortly after arriving, which is why he could not be found? 

But, even if these contradictions can be papered over with a credible cover story, the dismissal of senior Saudi intelligence official General Ahmed al-Asiri and Saud al-Qahtani, both of them close advisers to Crown Prince Mohammed, has pulled the rug out from under the official version. If the two knew about the murder, or perhaps even ordered it, this cannot have been without the knowledge of Saudi General Intelligence Khalid al-Humaidan. And if Humaidan, whose head hasn’t rolled yet, knew about it, so did the crown prince. 

One should treat with suspicion these dismissals, as well as King Salman’s establishment of a commission of inquiry, under Crown Prince Mohammed, that has also been tasked with reorganising the kingdom’s intelligence services. Asiri and Qahtani, who were appointed by the crown prince, will most likely win new appointments: they know too much about the crown prince and his military and economic failures. 

Asiri was previously a spokesman for the Saudi forces operating in Yemen, heading PR efforts to justify the war as benefiting international interests and to absolve Saudi Arabia from responsibility for the deaths of thousands of civilians in Yemen. Qahtani, meanwhile, directed the Saudi media from behind the scenes, operating social networks while shaping a positive image for the crown prince in Arab and international media. 

But, the most serious threat to the Saudi story and an American seal of approval is in Turkish intelligence headquarters in Ankara. Turkish listening devices and sensitive cameras have already yielded most of the horrific details of Khashoggi’s murder. Turkey claims the Saudis are cooperating with Turkish investigators, who are sharing their findings with their US counterparts, American intelligence agencies, but no one knows what is being held back from publication. Turkey, which changed from a Saudi rival to its enemy in the wake of the incident, is the main target of criticism of Saudi Arabia and its allies. 

Ankara is not accepting Saudi explanations regarding Khashoggi’s death. A spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, Omer Celik, has said that Turkey will get to the bottom of Khashoggi’s disappearance and death. 

His remark suggests that Turkey, to the extent that it has the evidence to back its claims, will determine the nature of future relations between Riyadh and Washington. If it has a recording of the murderers calling Crown Prince Mohammed to announce “mission accomplished,” or a record of the crown prince calling them during their stay in Turkey, Trump will have to re-examine, if not disavow, his support for the new Saudi version of events. 

The question is whether and how Turkey might want to leverage the Khashoggi affair, which is evolving from a mafia-style hit by Saudi intelligence operatives into an international incident obligating Western countries to manoeuvre carefully vis-a-vis Riyadh, caught between pressure to guarantee a transparent investigation of the murder and the need to preserve their political and economic interests. Theoretically, Turkey could demand political “hush money” such as the lifting of the Saudi embargo on Qatar in exchange for freezing the investigation or accepting the Saudi version. This is a high price, which the crown prince is unlikely to pay, but if the demand comes with American pressure and mediation, it could serve the interests of all sides. 

Khashoggi’s murder poses a dilemma for Saudi Arabia’s allies. For now, only Trump is willing to pull Riyadh’s chestnuts out of the fire. His decision will clearly and greatly affect the future of the investigation as well as international responses towards Saudi Arabia. 

Interestingly, no leader, including Turkey’s president, has called for sanctions like the ones imposed on Russia for assassinating former agents and dissident journalists. Perhaps that’s because Western states still regard the killing of a journalist by an Arab government as infuriating but not inconceivable, particularly since this was done in another Muslim state, which treats its own journalists as criminals. 

Russia, on the other hand, is perceived as part of the “civilised” world, committing its assassinations in the heart of Europe. Saudi Arabia, however, is seen as pro-Western by virtue of its membership in the alliance against Iran. As a result, even if it is far removed from embracing Western values, it enjoys certain “discounts” that the anti-Western resistance front members, Russia and China, do not.

(This article was originally published on DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)